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Massachusetts Senate Increases Protections for Victims of Domestic Violence

October 25, 2013

The Massachusetts Senate on Thursday unanimously passed legislation to enhance protections for victims of domestic violence, strengthen penalties for strangulation and establish new employment rights that will help victims keep their jobs and increase long-term economic productivity. October is recognized nationally as Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

“Too many people in our communities are victims of terrible acts of domestic violence. This bill takes very important steps to improve protections for victims and increase penalties for perpetrators,” Senator Karen Spilka (D-Ashland) said. “Victims of domestic violence need our support and protection, and I am so proud to support this necessary legislation.”

In the current Senate session, Senator Spilka has filed several other pieces of domestic violence legislation, including legislation to increase penalties for domestic violence by repeat offenders and a bill to better ensure the safety of victims of domestic violence who are awaiting trial. These two major provisions are included as amendments to this bill.

Among victims of intimate partner violence, about 1 in 4 women (24.3%) and 1 in 7 men (13.8%) have previously experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner at some point in their lives. One amendment to this bill increases penalties for repeat domestic violence offenders by updating current law to define domestic assault and battery as a first offense. Current law imposes penalties for “subsequent domestic violence offenses,” but fails to clearly define a first offense, making the statute unenforceable.

The bill also includes an amendment proposed by Senator Spilka that allows judges to set both cash bail and pretrial conditions in cases of domestic violence, to further ensure that victims of domestic violence are protected while awaiting trial. Currently in domestic violence cases, a judge must choose between imposing a cash bail or establishing pretrial conditions of release. This change will allow a judge to address a defendant’s flight risk and also set conditions to better ensure the safety of the victim, witnesses and the community.

The bill also upgrades strangulation to a felony and creates penalties of up to 5 years in state prison, up to 2 1/2 years in a house of correction, a fine of up to $5,000 or both a fine and imprisonment. Currently, strangulation is not treated as a separate offense and is charged as assault and battery unless there is a proven intent to kill. The bill enhances penalties for strangulation when it causes serious bodily harm, it is against a pregnant woman, there are subsequent strangulation convictions or if it is against a person who has a restraining order against the perpetrator to up to 10 years in state prison or 2 1/2 years in a house of correction and by a fine of up to $10,000.

In addition, the bill increases penalties for subsequent restraining order violations to up to 5 years in state prison or up to 2 1/2 in a house of correction. Under current law, penalties are limited to a fine of up to $5,000 or up to 2 1/2 years in a house of correction, or both.

To protect victims of domestic violence, the bill eliminates a provision that allows courts to dismiss charges for domestic violence related offenses, even if both parties agree in a written statement. Victims often feel pressure from their abuser to reconcile and are not emotionally able to resist their demands, making this provision inappropriate for domestic violence related offenses.

The bill takes steps to help victims recover and continue to make a living by requiring employers with 50 or more employees to allow up to 15 days of leave, with or without pay, to any employee who is a victim of domestic violence or lives with a family member who is a victim of domestic violence. Employees can use the leave to obtain medical attention, counseling, housing, protection orders and other legal assistance.

Employers can require employees to provide restraining orders, police reports, medical notes or other official documentation, such as a conviction record or victim advocate statement, to certify that the employee or employee’s family member is a victim of domestic violence.

Under this bill, all information about the employee’s leave must be kept confidential. In addition, employees must exhaust all available leave, such as vacation and sick time, before seeking leave established under this bill; however, an employer may waive this requirement.

The bill now goes to the House of Representatives.

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